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July 19, 2006

Back to Sunni Authoritarians?

by Jim Lobe

After posing as the champion of democratic reform and the long-oppressed Shia minority in the Arab world, the administration of President George W. Bush appears to be scurrying back to Washington's traditional policy of strong support for the region's Sunni-dominated, pro-U.S. authoritarian governments.

The shift has actually evolved over much of the past year, as elections in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, and elsewhere demonstrated the unexpectedly broad – and unwelcome – popularity of anti-Zionist and anti-U.S. Islamist parties, both Sunni and Shia.

Indeed, after Hamas won last January's Palestinian elections, Washington led an aid boycott of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in an apparent effort coordinated with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to bring about its collapse.

At the same time, U.S. pressure on its Arab allies to enact democratic reforms – hailed by Bush himself as a significant break with some 60 years of traditional U.S. diplomacy in the region – also eased markedly.

But the administration's retreat may accelerate as a result of the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon where Israel has launched punishing military campaigns against, respectively, Sunni Hamas and Shia Hezbollah – both groups with a strong social base and grassroots support.

Top administration officials have repeatedly praised unprecedented criticism by Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt of Hezbollah, in particular its "adventurism," as evidence of a major change in Arab attitudes toward Israel, in particular. A Saudi spokesman, for example, charged Hezbollah with "exposing Arab nations … to grave danger without these nations having a say in the matter."

"This marks a different era," stressed White House spokesman Tony Snow Tuesday, "because it does mean that Arab nations and Muslim nations have stood up and said Hezbollah is to blame and its sponsors [Syria and Iran] are to blame."

While that assessment may be true of the autocratic leaders who have denounced Hezbollah, however, it is much less clear in the case of their populations, supposedly the chief beneficiaries of Washington's efforts to democratize the region, according to experts here and in the Middle East who say that, if anything, their denunciations may have widened the gap between the rulers and the ruled.

"I don't think the Saudi government's statement is in tune with how most Saudis feel about the Lebanese situation," Bassem Alim, an activist lawyer in Jeddah, told the Christian Science Monitor. "The way they said it was damaging to their reputation in the Islamic world."

Indeed, spontaneous demonstrations in support of Hezbollah, as well as Hamas, have taken place in many Arab capitals, where the two groups are widely seen as the region's only Davids willing to stand up to the Goliath of Israel's awesome, U.S.-backed military power.

"I worry about the silent recruitments to al-Qaeda and its ilk being made nightly on Muslim television screens as broad Arab and Muslim publics take all this in," said Graham Fuller, a former top Middle East analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and RAND Corporation.

"The targets increasingly will be these regimes now perceived as craven and even apologists, seemingly for the Israeli position," he added.

The Arab autocrats' willingness to criticize Hezbollah – as well as the administration's eagerness to extol them – may also reflect a somewhat different, although related, strategic calculation, coming as it does amid growing concerns by the same three governments regarding the possible emergence of an Iranian-led "Shia Crescent" across the Middle East that threatens the Sunnis' historical dominance.

Indeed, the same three governments had strongly opposed Washington's 2003 invasion of Iraq in major part because of concerns that it would empower that country's Shia majority at the expense of its traditional Sunni leaders. That the neoconservatives who led the drive to war here explicitly desired such a result – in the mistaken belief that it would promote "regime change" in Iran, in addition to setting back Arab nationalism – naturally fanned those fears.

Three years later, it now appears that the Sunni leaders' apprehensions were fully justified and that, contrary to the neoconservative calculation, Iran and its allies, which include Syria, a major part of the Iraqi government, as well as Hezbollah and increasingly Hamas, have been emboldened.

"The Sunni states do not seem to be as concerned about Iran's nuclear program as about its new confidence, its determination to speak for Shia populations everywhere, and its insistence that Iran be consulted on major policy issues – or, if not, it is prepared to make its own policies that others can ignore only at their peril," said Gary Sick, a Middle East expert at Columbia University.

"The Hezbollah attack across the Israeli line is seen as a particularly disturbing case in point," he noted, adding that what precise role, if any, Iran played is unimportant. "It is being carried out by a Shia non-state actor who is outside the ambit of the traditional Sunni counsels of power, and its effects extend to the entire region, like it or not."

In that respect, the Sunni leaders' denunciations of Hezbollah, particularly that by Saudi Arabia, represents "an entirely new factor" in regional politics by challenging "Arab conventional wisdom that any opposition to Israel had to be supported," according to Sick, who served as former President Jimmy Carter's top Iran adviser.

"The rules of the game that they see changing are less concerned with Israeli concepts of strategic deterrence and much more concerned with their own Shia populations and the emergence of a Shia power axis extending from Tehran into the heart of previously Sunni Baghdad," he said.

In this context, efforts by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to impose a "government of national unity," roll back the post-invasion de-Ba'athification process, negotiate with Sunni insurgents, and press the Shia-led government into major concessions sought by Sunni leaders should be seen not only as a way to stabilize Iraq and begin withdrawing U.S. troops, but also as a means of restoring the sectarian balance and reassuring the region's Sunni leaders that the Iranian/Shia threat will be contained.

While such moves may provide some relief to the rulers, however, it is not clear that their subjects see the threat through the same sectarian lens – particularly at a time when Israel is bombing both Sunni and Shia targets – making U.S. pressure to pursue democratic reforms increasingly problematic for its geo-strategic interests.

Indeed, in what the administration has hailed as the Arab world's freest and most democratic state, Iraq, Shia and Sunni lawmakers voted unanimously Sunday to approve a strong resolution condemning Israel's attack on Lebanon without any mention of Hezbollah.

Sick noted that the Saudi denunciation probably challenged its public opinion, "which was almost certainly more sympathetic to Hezbollah, especially with round-the-clock TV pictures of Lebanese children being slaughtered by Israeli missiles."

"Sectarian fear may be stronger at the regime level than at the popular level," according to Fuller. "Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are equally petrified at the emergence of now 'elected' Islamist forces who are more nationalist/Islamist and popular than any of these regimes," he noted.

"It is deeply worrying and delegitimizing for them when Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah all take a more 'pro-Arab,' pro-Palestinian position than these regimes dare do," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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